“You are the door through which we come to thee, inexhaustible source of consolation for everyone . . .”
With those words, Pope Francis on Tuesday morning symbolically inaugurated the Holy Year of Mercy in the Vatican by opening the Holy Door in the atrium of the Basilica of St Peter's. At the end of an almost two hour-long Mass, the pope, flanked by priests, cardinals and his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, knocked on the Holy Door, which then opened up into the basilica.
Earlier during his homily, Francis had explained the significance of both the Holy Door, which was last opened by St John Paul II in the jubilee year of 2000, and of the Holy Year itself, saying:
“To pass through the Holy Door means to rediscover the infinite mercy of the father who welcomes everyone and goes out personally to encounter each of them.”
Recalling that today marks the 50th anniversary of the conclusion of Vatican Council II, Francis called that event an “encounter . . . between the church and men and women of our time”, adding: “[It was] an encounter marked by the power of the spirit, who impelled the church to emerge from the shoals which for years had kept her self-enclosed so as to set out once again, with enthusiasm, on her missionary journey.”
Tuesday morning’s imposing ceremony took place against the background of heightened security arrangements in light of the terrorist atrocity in Paris, with 2,000 police officers, including helicopters and rooftop sharpshooters, overlooking the square. Notwithstanding regular calls from mostly secular Italian public figures for the Holy Year to be suspended because of repeated Islamic State threats against him, Pope Francis has insisted that the Holy Year and the “highly symbolic” opening of the Holy Door of mercy go ahead.
Given that last week, against the advice of many, the pope insisted on visiting the diamond-rich, strife-torn
Central African Republic
, he was hardly likely to postpone the Holy Year on his own doorstep. While in the Central African Republic, he also staged an early opening of a Holy Door in the Cathedral of Banqui, “as a sign of faith and hope”.
In the end, however, the security issue made itself felt with the number of pilgrims significantly down, at least at the beginning of the ceremony, when there appeared to be about 30,000 people in the square. The damp grey morning and the slow-moving metal detector checks to which everyone was subjected obviously contributed to the reduced numbers.
However, Vatican sources claimed that up to 70,000 people were in the square to hear the Pope’s Angelus address after the Mass. Even this figure, however, is well down on the 100,000-strong attendance that, prior to the Paris attacks, might have been expected.
On Tuesday afternoon, Pope Francis was scheduled to lay a wreath at the foot of the statute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Piazza Spagna, by way of marking the feast of the Immaculate Conception. On Tuesday evening, the Holy Year opening concludes with a light show on the facade of St Peter’s in which a number of photographers offer their thoughts on the Holy Year of Mercy.